Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Reliable information pertaining to the first half of Aphra Behn’s life is virtually nonexistent. The sparse biographical information for this period is, moreover, frequently contradictory. The earliest account of her career is to be found in the introduction to an edition of her fictional works that was published posthumously in 1696, which purports to be memoirs on her life written by a “gentlewoman” of her acquaintance. It is now believed that the “gentlewoman” in question was, in fact, Behn’s personal friend and editor Charles Gildon (1665-1724). According to his account, she was born into a good family by the name of Johnson, whose ancestral roots lay in the city of Canterbury in Kent. Her father, furthermore, was reported as being related to Lord Francis Willoughby of Parham, a man who used his good offices to secure Johnson an appointment to the administrative post of lieutenant-governor over many islands in the West Indies and the territory of Surinam. When Gildon’s memoirs were reprinted a year later in an anthology devoted to the lives of dramatic poets, the text was revised in such a way as to state explicitly that Behn was born in the city of Canterbury.
Information that runs counter to Gildon’s memoirs on two important issues, however, comes from the hand of another contemporary writer, Anne Finch. Finch, who is better known as the countess of Winchelsea, left a marginal note in a manuscript copy of some unpublished poems of her own in which she mentions that the place of Behn’s birth was the small market town of Wye, near Canterbury, and that her father had been a barber by trade. Finch’s account was first discovered by an English literary scholar in 1884, but it was not until the opening decade of the twentieth century that the pertinent entry in the baptismal registry at Wye received thorough scrutiny. It was thereupon learned that a child listed as Ayfara, along with a brother named John, was duly baptized there on July 10, 1640, but that her family name was not Johnson at all. The parents of Ayfara and her brother are, in fact, identified as a couple named John and Amy Amis. Then, in the 1950’s, another English scholar perused the burial registry at Wye and found that both of these children had died a few days after their baptism: Ayfara on July 12 and John on July 16. In neither the baptismal nor the burial registries, moreover, is there any reference to John Amis’s being a barber by trade. In the light of these discrepancies, it is difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that Finch’s marginal note is nothing more than a false lead.
The only other contemporary evidence pertaining to Behn’s birth comes from some manuscripts now held in the British Library that were composed before 1708 by a member of the gentry named Thomas Culpepper. Culpepper reports that Behn was born at Canterbury or Sturry and that her maiden name was Johnson. He further claims that she was also his foster-sister by virtue of the fact that her mother was his nurse at one time. A subsequent check of the marriage registry at St. Paul’s in Canterbury corroborated Culpepper’s account insofar as a couple named Bartholomew and Elizabeth Johnson was married there on August 25, 1638. It has also been ascertained that Bartholomew Johnson was a yeoman (that is, a member of the class of small freeholding farmers) and that he originally came from Bishopsbourne, a village situated three and a half miles from Canterbury. The first of the couple’s four children was, moreover, named Eaffry (Aphra), but she appears to have been born in neither Canterbury nor Sturry. The baptismal records of St. Michael’s in the village of Harbledown, located just outside the walls of Canterbury, list her as being baptized there on December 14, 1640. Because Culpepper himself was born on Christmas Day in 1637, there would appear to be some question whether Johnson could have served him in the capacity of a wet-nurse.
The question of Behn’s parentage is further complicated by a passage appearing in James Rodway’s Chronological History of the Discovery and Settlement of Guiana, 1493-1796, a work first published in 1888. Here it is reported that a relative of Lord Willoughby named Johnson left his homeland toward the end of 1658 bound for Surinam in the company of his wife and children, along with an adopted daughter named Afra or Aphra Johnson. In the absence of any further corroborative evidence, however, the claim regarding Aphra’s status as Johnson’s foster child is still viewed with a large measure of skepticism by most literary scholars at the current time. Rodway goes on to assert that Johnson never assumed his administrative duties in Surinam because he fell ill during the voyage and died at sea. The rest of the family, according to this history, duly disembarked at Surinam and spent the next two or three years residing on one of Lord Willoughby’s estates in that land.
Rodway’s assertion that Johnson died before reaching Surinam is corroborated by some autobiographical remarks that Behn...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
The details of Aphra Behn’s birth are not known. The parish register of the Sts. Gregory and Martin Church, Wye, England, contains an entry stating that Ayfara Amis, daughter of John and Amy Amis, was baptized on July 10, 1640. Apparently, John Johnson, related to Lord Francis Willoughby of Parham, adopted the girl, although no one seems to know exactly when. Ayfara Amis (some sources spell her first name as Aphara) accompanied her adoptive parents on a journey to Suriname (later Dutch Guiana) in 1658, Willoughby having appointed Johnson to serve as deputy governor of his extensive holdings there. Unfortunately, the new deputy died on the voyage; his widow and children proceeded to Suriname and took up residence at St. John’s, one of Lord Willoughby’s plantations. Exactly how long they remained is not clear, but certainly the details surrounding the time Behn spent at St. John’s form the background for Oroonoko.
Biographers have established the summer of 1663 as the most probable date of Behn’s return to England. By 1665, Behn was again in London and married to a wealthy merchant of Dutch extraction who may well have had connections in, or at least around, the court of Charles II. In 1665 came the Great Plague and the death of Behn’s husband; the latter proved the more disastrous for her, specifically because (again for unknown reasons) the Dutch merchant left nothing of substance to her—nothing, that is, except his court connections. Charles II, in the midst of the first of his wars against Holland, hired Behn as a secret government agent to spy on the Dutch, for which purpose she proceeded to Antwerp, a Belgian city near the border with Holland. There she contacted another British agent, William Scott, from whom she obtained various pieces of military information, which she forwarded to London. Although she received little credit for her work, and even less money, Behn did conceive of the pseudonym Astrea, the name under which she published most of her poetry.
The entire adventure into espionage proved a dismal failure for Behn; she even had to borrow money and pawn her valuables to pay her debts and obtain passage back to England. Once home, early in 1667, she found no relief from her desperate...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
Although the details surrounding the life of Aphra Behn have at least become stabilized, they have not always been clear. Her earliest biographer, the poet Charles Gildon (1665-1724), maintained that she was born at Canterbury, in Kent, the daughter of a man named Johnson. In 1884, however, Edmund Gosse discovered a marginal note in a manuscript belonging to the poet Anne Finch, countess of Winchelsea (1661-1720), revealing that Behn had been born at Wye, near Canterbury, the daughter of a barber—which John Johnson certainly was not. The countess’s note receives support from an entry in the parish register of the Saints Gregory and Martin Church, Wye, to the effect that Ayfara Amis, daughter of John and Amy Amis, was baptized there on July 10, 1640. Apparently Johnson, related to Lord Francis Willoughby of Parham, adopted the girl, although no one seems certain of the exact year. Nevertheless, Ayfara Amis accompanied her stepparents on a journey to Surinam (later Dutch Guiana) in 1658, Lord Willoughby having appointed Johnson to serve as deputy governor of his extensive holdings there. Unfortunately, the new deputy died on the voyage; his widow and children proceeded to Surinam and took up residence at St. John’s, one of Willoughby’s plantations. The exact length of their stay has yet to be determined; later biographers, though, have settled upon the summer of 1663 as the most probable date of return. The family’s tenure at St. John’s forms the background of Behn’s most celebrated production, her novel Oroonoko.
By 1665, the young woman was established in London, married to a wealthy Dutch merchant (or at least a merchant of Dutch ancestry) who may well have had connections in or around the court of Charles II. In 1665 came the Great Plague and the death of Behn’s husband; his death proved disastrous for Behn. For unknown reasons, the Dutch merchant left her nothing of substance—with the possible exception of his connections at court. Charles II, in the midst of his first war against the Dutch, hired Behn as a secret agent to spy against Holland; for that purpose, she proceeded to Antwerp. There she contacted another agent, William Scott, from whom she received various pieces of military information for forwarding to London. Although her work earned her little acknowledgment and even less money, Behn did conceive of the pseudonym Astrea, the name under which she published most of her poetry. Essentially, the venture into foreign intrigue proved a dismal failure for her; she had to borrow money and pawn her few valuables to pay her debts and provide passage back to England.
Once home, early in 1667, Behn found no relief from her desperate financial situation. Her creditors threatened...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Concerning the family background and early life of Aphra Behn (bayn), virtually nothing is known with certainty. The sparse information that exists is usually contradictory. A parish register in the town of Wye shows that a baby named Aphara Amis was baptized in that town, in the county of Kent, England, on July 10, 1640. It is likely that she was born in the same year and in the same county, and Aphara Amis probably became Aphra Behn. While her literary works show that she was widely read, with a knowledge of several languages, nothing is known about her education. Early in life, she traveled to Surinam (modern Guyana), where she remained for a few months; the trip left an enduring impression and provided materials for her prose...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Aphra Behn was the first woman in the history of English literature to earn her living as a writer. Behn’s plays reflect the exuberant spirit of Restoration drama and succeeded with audiences of her time; some were regularly performed into the eighteenth century. Her primary significance to literary history, however, lies in her prose fiction. She is an important figure in the transition from the prose romances of the Renaissance to the modern novel. Her narrative art assures her interest to literary historians, and her humanitarian themes endow her works with lasting relevance.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Aphra Behn (bayn) has been called the first woman to support herself by her writing, yet her origins are so controversial and obscure that scholars are not even sure of her name. Some accounts claim that she was born Aphra or Aphara Amis, and one states that she was a barber’s daughter named Aphra Johnson. As a young woman she journeyed with her family to Suriname, where her father (or foster father) was to be the lieutenant-governor, but he died at sea. Apparently Aphra and her mother and brother stayed for several years in Suriname, where she met William Scot, the son of the regicide Thomas Scot. About 1658, she returned to England, married a Dutch merchant named Behn, and was soon left a destitute widow.
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IntroductionAphra Behn is often incorrectly celebrated as the “first female playwright.” Nuns Hrosvitha and Hildegarde, however, wrote religious closet dramas centuries before her, though their plays were not performed during their lifetimes. As a result, Behn’s career was far more influential, and she is credited with being one of the first women to earn a living writing for the theater. Her best-known play, The Rover, is a quintessential Restoration comedy of intrigue. Complete with masks, mistaken identities, and multiple, intersecting love stories, the play was the kind of raucous, bawdy entertainment that Restoration audiences loved. In fact, the play became so popular that Behn penned a sequel, but it was the original that made her a pioneer in theater history.
- Like Christopher Marlowe before her, Aphra Behn has often been suspected of being a spy for the Crown. Ostensibly working under Charles II, her code name was Astrea.
- Critics still argue whether or not Behn was a “feminist” writer. The Rover contains several attempted rapes—all played for laughs.
- Behn’s writing was not solely limited to drama. One of her most famous and successful works was Oroonoko, a novel about an African prince who becomes enslaved.
- Little is known about her husband, the mysterious Mr. Behn. Some believe that Aphra invented him and then “killed” him off because the social status of a widow was better than that of an unmarried woman.
- Renewed interest in Behn’s work has drawn greater attention to The Female Wits, a group of women writers contemporary to Behn.
Aphra Behn, a favorite of feminist literary critics, is considered to be the first woman to have made a living through her writing. There were other women writers before Behn, but few of them enjoyed financial success. Behn turned to her literary talent after the death of her husband, and she quickly proved her merit as well as her perseverance. Behn suffered from the biases of her time against women writers in general and women dramatists in particular. She was assumed by many of her contemporaries to be a prostitute because of her connection to the theater and because at the time, women who sold their writing were seen as selling themselves. In her prefaces, Behn sometimes commented on her unique status as a woman writer and asked to be taken seriously as a writer, with equal right to freedom in what she wrote. For example, in her preface to The Lucky Chance, or An Alderman's Bargain (1686), she wrote, ‘‘All I ask, is for the privilege for my masculine part, the poet in me...to tread in those successful paths my predecessors have long thrived in...If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves, I [will] lay down my Quill and you shall hear no more of me.’’
Born in 1640 in Kent, England, Behn learned French and Dutch as she grew up. In 1663, she traveled with her family to Surinam, West Indies, where her father was to take an administrative post, but he died on the voyage there, and the family eventually returned. Young Behn kept a journal during her stay in Surinam, which she transformed into the novella Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688). By the time she was twenty-six, she had lost her husband of three years, a Dutch merchant named Behn about whom little else is known. She briefly held a position as a spy in Antwerp for King Charles II during the war against the Dutch (1665-1667), but was not paid for her work and returned to London a pauper in the year following the Great Fire of 1666. Having unsuccessfully appealed to various friends for financial assistance, Behn served time in debtor's prison and, upon release, began her writing career. Her first play, The Forc'd Marriage, or The Jealous Bridegroom (1670), established her reputation, and she continued to produce enough substantial work each year to make a living. Despite this success, Behn's reputation suffered because of the topics she chose. Many of her eighteen extant plays portray various forms of prostitution, and some of her novels and poems contain frank eroticism that shocked early audiences. Being one of the earliest female playwrights, she was seen as someone who, like an actress, displayed herself to the public. Since actresses were viewed as—and some were—prostitutes, it was assumed by many that Behn was a prostitute, too.
Like her role model, William Shakespeare Behn often mined ideas from existing works and vastly improved upon them. She often complained that her works never attained the fame they deserved because they were ‘‘writ by a woman.’’ However, her achievement survived her, for by the nineteenth century Virginia Woolf would exclaim in A Room of One's Own that a woman could live the writer's life since, ‘‘Aphra Behn had done it!’’
Aphra Behn died in April of 1689. Engraved on her tombstone, perhaps at the request of her lover, John Hoyle, are the words, "Here lies a proof that wit can never be / Defence enough against mortality.’’ She is buried in Westminster Abbey.